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Kena: Bridge Of Spirits review – independent spirit


Kena: Bridge Of Spirits – the Rot are just a bit too cute (pic: Ember Labs)

The latest PlayStation exclusive is one of the best looking games on the PS5, even though it’s an indie title by an inexperienced new team.

The term indie game is rapidly becoming meaningless. At a basic level it just means a developer that isn’t owned by another company but to the average gamer it suggests somethin made by very small teams and which probably looks like an old retro game. That hasn’t been uniformly the case for a long while though, with bigger indie projects taking over the mid-budget ‘AA’ space that used to exist in generations past. But Kena: Bridge Of Spirits is a full-on AAA indie game, at least from a technical standpoint.

Although it’s cross-gen, Kena is one of the best looking games on the PlayStation 5, with a gorgeous line in verdant landscapes and Pixar style character designs. It’s absolutely not what you’d expect from an indie title and while some environments are not quite as detailed as they first seem the overall effect is highly impressive. If this becomes commonplace in the new generation then it really will be a brave new world for both games and developers.

However, as 50 years of video game history has shown, good graphics do not make a good game. Which is not to say that Kena is bad, but it is a considerably less interesting game to play than it is to look at.

This is the first game from developer Ember Lab but they do already have considerable experience with computer-generated graphics, including having made the unofficial Zelda’s Mask tribute Terrible Fate some five years ago now. Graduating to making actual video games is reminiscent of the path many demo teams used to take in the 16-bit Amiga era, where they’d start off making non-interactive demos for fun and evolving that skill into making traditional games.

Many developers still going today started that way, including DICE, Housemarque, and Remedy, so Ember Lab are continuing a proud tradition. Which is the most positive way to look at Kena, a game that embraces all that the new generation of consoles can offer in terms of visuals and yet plays like something from several generations earlier.

The eponymous Kena is a young ‘spirit guide’ who has her work cut out for her when she tries to deal with a village whose entire population has been wiped out, psychically scaring the surrounding land and causing evil ‘hearts’ to sprout up that generate monstrous looking creatures for you to… hit really hard with a stick.

Kena is very reminiscent of middle-of-the-road PlayStation 2 era games such as Jak And Daxter and Tak And The Power Of Juju, games that were competent in their time but which it’s unsurprising to find have not been updated for more recent formats. As in those games, Kena’s progression is ruthlessly linear, it’s primarily based around platforming and combat, and it features lots of collectibles.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially for anyone nostalgic for that era, but the whole game does have a noticeably old-fashioned feel it. How purposeful this is on the part of Ember Lab is actually difficult to say, though, as the gameplay mechanics themselves are quite modern. The platforming is very similar to Uncharted, which is to say it requires very little skill or forethought, and the staff-based combat uses a similar middle ground, in terms of control complexity, to a FromSoftware game.

As you can probably guess, this is nowhere near as difficult as a From game and the puzzles, which make up the other main pillar of gameplay, are considerably less complex than the average Zelda – even though they’re clearly using that series as their inspiration. Kena’s not trivially easy, and unlike some recent games it does have multiple difficulty levels, but you’ll still likely shoot through the whole thing in eight hours or less.

Kena: Bridge Of Spirits – the graphics really are great (pic: Ember Labs)

The most unusual element of Kena is the Rot, cute little spirit creatures that work very much like Pikmin in that they can be used to dogpile enemies or otherwise distract them while you move in for a heavier attack. They’re obnoxiously cute but also quite timid, so you have to build up a courage meter, by landing blows yourself, before you can use them effectively.

The Rot are the most interesting gameplay aspect of Kena, as they’re also used to heal or power-up your own attacks. They can be powered up themselves too, and used to solve puzzles and collect items when out of combat, but… they’re so very obviously inspired by Pikmin that describing them as the game’s most original element is a bit of misnomer.

With the possible exception of the Rot (Pikmin is a Nintendo-only franchise, after all) you’ve almost certainly seen and done everything in Kena multiple times before, in other similar games. Not only is the combat and platforming very superficial but even the storytelling and characterisation feels shallow and unengaging. It’s all perfectly fine on paper, and entertaining enough while you’re playing, but the experience leaves your mind almost as soon as the controller does your hands.

Put in the context of this being Ember Labs’ first game though it all seems a lot more forgivable. With all its ideas borrowed from other, better, games (and animated movies) Kena feels exactly like the sort of thing a technically proficient but inexperienced team would make. Hopefully they’ll move on to bigger and better things in the future but for now Kena is a fine, if forgettable, starting place.



Kena: Bridge Of Spirits review summary

In Short: Highly impressive on a technical level but the throwbacks to PS2 era game design feel less like a homage and more an indication of the developers’ lack of experience and imagination.

Pros: Fantastic graphics and art design. Competent combat and the Rot are an interesting spin on Pikmin style helpers.

Cons: Despite the graphics the game feels very old-fashioned, with shallow action and puzzles, simplistic level design, and unengaging storytelling and characters.

Score: 6/10

Formats: PlayStation 5 (reviewed), PlayStation 4, and PC
Price: £32.99
Publisher: Ember Lab
Developer: Ember Lab
Release Date: 21st September 2021
Age Rating: 12

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